A Letter from Beijing

Dear Mark,

I am in a cab, heading on time; in one hour my plan to Wuhan takes off. We drive under the ring roads, and an electronic billboard informs me that the Olympic Games are 440 days away. Then the bird’s nest will be filled and the world will watch the opening ceremony designed by Steven Spielberg and Zhang Yimou. The radio plays; seeing the numb expression on the cabdriver’s face, I can’t tell whether we’re listening to party propaganda or prank calls.

While the city disappears behind me – the metropolitan mass melting into the grey, seemingly polluted, air – I think about the letter I promised you a while ago. You wanted to know more about the architecture in this city. I share a similar interest, but living in the city has made me less interested in its architecture in terms of aesthetics, forms and design and more interested in its psychological effect on people – in how buildings alter behavior and in how society resists and embraces urban development. To the right, we pass a dilapidated factory, and in between the green corridor to the left, I spot volumes under construction. All in all, nothing has changed dramatically since I arrived in Beijing nearly one year ago; the transformative power of construction is still tremendous. We drive through the Upper East Side – in a city that also has a Central Park, a Times Square and a neighborhood called SoHo – and through an area where, according to the billboards, ‘the nobly international residential district gathers worldwide elites’. Another billboard cautions that ‘to lead an ideal life, you have multiple dreams to attain regarding humanistic space, environmental space and interior space’. We can all laugh about this real-estate poetry, but one shouldn’t underestimate the underlying intention. These urban screens acquaint the population with the prospect of a new city, a new look, and a reality that they can’t relate to just yet but will need to accept eventually. The construction of the new future is in the hands of an army of designers who, day in and day out, render an impossible future that is being implemented by large architectural institutes and developed by invisible investors. This was all decided and laid out at a time that preceded 9/11 and the phenomenon of Delirious Dubai. And that will continue in the post-Olympic era.

Some months ago, during the China-Africa summit, the billboards featured elephants, giraffes, pyramids and native Africans. Beyond the third ring road, some of these billboards are still around. One week ago, Beijing’s mayor complained about the rhetorical excess on billboards, stating that there is a problem with certain advertising that fails to conform to the demands of a socialist spiritual civilization. Recently, a Chinese architect proposed a plan to turn Tiananmen Square into a forest. Another architect tried to convince me of his Beijing blur theory, which he bases on the dubious analysis that the milky white air, filled with dust particles, makes architecture look really terrible. I wouldn’t blame the weather, I replied. We were sitting in Bar Centro, near the CCTV construction site. As work on its piling caused the earth to tremble, I witnessed an amazing sensory transformation: the taste of steel and whiskey blended together.

In this city everything is moving, shifting transforming, shrinking and expanding. Recently,
after many public complaints, the Chinese government issued guidelines to avoid extravagance in the nation’s administrative buildings. Wanting to ban the construction of wasteful and overly expensive structures, officials issued a circular stating that future government buildings were to be ‘stately’, simple and practical without ‘luxurious’ interior or exterior ornament.

I am not sure whether my plane will leave on time. Around this time of the year, major sandstorms hit the city, making Beijing’s architecture look blurry. Simultaneously, pineapples appear on street corners and pavement stalls. My lungs are intoxicated, I have difficulty breathing, and yesterday somebody told me that at night the CCTV construction site bears a resemblance to a volcano.

In 1940, when Mondrian was confronted with the billboards and neon hieroglyphs on Times Square in New York City, he allegedly exclaimed, ‘How beautiful! If only I couldn’t read English.’ I don’t read the language here in Beijing, but it is indeed beautiful. If only I didn’t know anything about architecture and urbanism.

The city is overwhelming, in your face, a panic of forms and forces, interlocking and clashing. It is a place where it’s much easier to understand disappearance than appearance. When I visit a monumental construction site, strange images fill my head. It feels like exploring a ruin, with the sole difference that the materials look new and are scattered all over the place. Wandering among them, like detectives, are migrant workers, all in suits. The future is random, its components stacked and spread out as though waiting for a storm from paradise to gather and organize everything. It’s difficult to understand what is being built up and what is being demolished. The city is submissive: it’s the capital of a nation demonstrating its power over urban resistance. I hear that in your country people are worried about the disappearance of the hutongs. Here we are tremendously worried about the appearance of a new city. In 2004 hutong tours for visitors to China contributed four million yuan (€400,000) to the nation’s coffers. This will double in the coming years. The new urban explorers no longer hang out in hutongs, however. Their latest hot spot is Line13, a 40.85-km-long light-rail line that connects the northeast and northwest corners of the second ring road and kisses the sixth ring road in the north. I suggested to the Olympic Committee that the marathon be organized beneath this line. I never got a reply. Well, forget about the hutongs and the pedi-cabs. Line 13 is the place to be. It lets passengers view over an hour of urban development for less than 3 yuan (€0.30).

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when experiencing, living and working in a situation of flux is to think that all of this is made possible through conscious and deliberate decisions that are executed with precision and with an understanding of the future. A logical necessity seems to lie at the core of the development. Construction and destruction intertwine, fuse, reinforce one another, spiral, flip, twist, turn, jump, fall, and release and diffuse labour. The process hastens the breath of the masses, the imagination of the poet. It enlarges the wallet of the developer, the boredom of the critic. It tempers the enthusiasm of the architect, the life of the individual. It talks to the eyes.

A Letter from Beijing | Mark Magazine 09, July/August 2007

In a previous letter, I wrote to you about the voice I heard every morning in our hutong, and about figuring out that it came from a man who sells cabbage, coal and carrots, and sometimes knives, apples or tablecloths. I couldn’t hear the difference, but people in the neighbourhood do. Recently I rented a similar bicycle car and drove through our and neighbouring hutongs while uttering nonsensical sounds. People came out of their courtyards, money in hand. I asked them what they thought they could buy from me.

A friend of mine rented six apartments in the span of one year – all with a luxurious view of the same construction site. Every day we had lunch on his balcony, overlooking the thing. I saw time and space collide, shape come into being. After each visit, I collected the metal dust from my skin and built a model of the building with it, on a scale of 1:100. I followed a floating migrant for one week, tracking and mapping his life between the site and his dormitory, a distance of roughly 100 metres. I sat in a cab for a whole day, circling the third ring road until I got dizzy. I wanted to find the edge of the city. After three days of roaming, I gave up. Theoretically, I know the difference between the urban and the rural, but once they get mixed up, I’m completely confused. In China 60 million urbanites suffer from schizophrenia. I got lost in twilight territory and phoned the embassy to send a driver to pick me up. I was taken to the hospital of Dr Wang, a famed expert on urban psychology. The rapid urbanization of China has caused side effects; the incidence of mental disorder is higher in cities than in the countryside. In the waiting room, I talked to an architect whose explanation for living a lie sounded something like this: ‘The most decisive moment in the production of a building is when you need the force of will to convince your developer that if this building is not made, the world, as we know it, will come to an end.’ I told him that reality is a bit different. At that point we left the room and took a cab to the seventh ring road, while making plans to build the eighth.

The current change in the urban image – the demolition of the urban fabric – is not one that is imposed on people solely from above. It seems to be more a demand from the top that is implemented by the bottom. As such, it exemplifies today’s ideological buzzword, ‘harmony’. It’s a form of social poetry that aspires to develop socialist culture and ethics and to promote a new code of conduct in preparation for the Olympics.

A recent report stated that, in 2006, 4.5 million m2 of illegal buildings were demolished; 95.4 percent were torn down by their owners. At the beginning of 2007, 3.32 million m2 of illegal structures are still waiting to be demolished. On 24 May 2007, property owners at a community in Beishatan, Chaoyang District, met to protest the construction of unplanned buildings in their community’s green space. They were met by more than 100 men armed with poles and shovels, who sent eight of them to the hospital. Recently a Chinese artist gave a video camera to the owner of a restaurant in the Qiamen area, south of Tiananmen Square, with which he was to record of the disappearance of his property. The owner was far less concerned about his property and its historical significance than he was about financial compensation and becoming a movie star.

Well, Mark, I finally arrived in the airport and my plane will take off soon. I’m ready to go and see other contradictions between states of balance and imbalance, which seem to arise without interruption and resolve without interruption. I came here to experience how the new cities, or the enlargement and restructuring of the old cities, transcend human and individual comprehension. Cities happen to the masses without giving them an explanation. Inevitably, however, these cities will be a success story. A story in line with Napoleon‘s adage: ‘To magnetize the masses, above all you must talk to the eyes.’

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“A Letter from Beijing” by Bert de Muynck
Published in Mark Magazine #09 July/August, 2007

Other publications in MARK Magazine;
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | Published in MARK Magazine #12 (Feb-March, 08)
Olympic Architecture | Published in MARK Magazine #14 (June-July, 08)

Related movingcities-projects;
Line13 Superlinearity-workshop, May 2008.